Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Confidence, leadership, and the apocalypse

By Don Moore

In a world full of uncertainties, it is comforting to find someone who knows the truth and the courage to speak it. That is what his followers found in Harold Camping, a Christian minister in Oakland, California. Camping preached that the Bible foretold the end of the world on May 21st, 2011. The compelling certainty in Camping’s message drove followers to dedicate themselves to his cause, giving up their jobs, spending their days warning others of the coming apocalypse, and donating all their money to help fund the massive publicity campaign coordinated by Camping’s Family Radio network to spread the word.

Camping’s message is, in a twisted sense, a spectacularly successful act of leadership. Few among our business or political leaders can inspire that kind of devotion from anyone. Camping’s success arises in part from what my research suggests is one key element of successful leaders: confidence. To inspire others, leaders must be able to claim that they know what they’re doing. They must plot a path for others to follow, and be able to articulate the glorious rewards that will come to those who stay the course.

My research with Haas colleagues Cameron Anderson and Jessica Kennedy suggests that those who are the most certain of themselves are most likely to attain positions of status in their groups. It is not necessary that they be correct, just that they be confident enough to claim they know what they are doing and for other group members to believe them. Our research suggests further that group status hierarchies, once established, are fairly resistant to change. Will Harold Camping remain as the head of his Family Radio network? It’s a good bet.

Is quite rare that leaders make the kind of bold and easily falsifiable claim that Camping made. Politicians studiously avoid such claims, and it should be obvious why they do. As countless jokes told on May 22nd attest, Camping lost a great deal of credibility. One would think that his followers whose lives have been undone by their fealty to him would the first to reject his leadership, but history suggests otherwise. Camping’s doomsday prophesy was not the first, and not the first to inspire followers to give up their jobs, money, and worldly goods. When the apocalypse fails to arrive as promised, many of the faithful report that their faith abides.

Indeed, May 21st, 2011 was not Camping’s first doomsday prophesy. He predicted the end of the world before, most recently in 1994. And in the wake of that embarrassment, he was nevertheless able to assemble an army of adherents whose savings funded a multi-million dollar publicity campaign to spread the word. Those who prefer to follow leaders who display certainty run the great risk of pledging themselves to demagogues, crazies, and liars. And while we may be tempted to shake our heads in pity at them, we would do well to offer ourselves the same sympathies. After all, most of us find confidence in potential leaders compelling and inspiring. The alternative, which all of us would do well to consider, is to select leaders who are accurate. Yes, confidence is nice, but better still is to select as leaders those who actually know the truth. And that requires that we grow more comfortable with the inherent uncertainty in predicting the future, especially when it comes to the apocalypse.